On the inside, Strayed Lights from Embers is a Soulslike. It doesn’t look like one; there’s a definite and notable absence of homicidal undead knights and dragons with their insides on the outside, but it’s a Soulslike all the same. Well sort of. Characterised by a high (ish) difficulty, and a dark realm wherein the enemies get up and dust themselves off whenever you take a dirt nap, the decidedly purple world of Strayed Lights is most certainly Soulslike-adjacent at least.
It also flies the Soulslike flag with its nonsensical plot that at some point, popularity-dependent, some YouTuber may attempt to make sense of. As it is, I’ve played through a chunk of the game in preview form and haven’t a sodding clue what’s going on.
You’re a being of light, possibly, who awakens as a little toddler made of fire at the beginning, and then kind of grows up over the course of a movement tutorial. Instead of doing the decent thing and enrolling in a college or something, your suddenly adolescent protagonist instead gets right into taking on the evil that has corrupted the land. Talk about fast-tracking your future education.
There’s no dialogue, just action, which feels like a pure concept even if it does come off as a little one trick at this point. As with most indie action games set in predominantly purple worlds, your character is able to switch between two states. One of them is always orange for some reason, and that’s the case in Strayed Lights. The other is blue. Combat is about switching between these states in time with your various enemies to administer the correct colour of offence or defence.
Combat is timing-based. While you can damage enemies with a melee attack or a charging headbutt that does surprisingly high damage, the game wants you to parry enemy attacks and build up your energy. Build up enough and you can hit the left trigger to unleash a powerful energy blast that will vaporise most enemies. It’s a cool mechanic, for sure, but it’s not the most varied and dynamic of battle systems, at least at this early stage. There’s a responsive, oddly satisfying dodge mapped to the B button too, which you’ll need to use when enemies switch to a purple state, the cheating sods.
While the combat is certainly entertaining, what I can’t quite get comfortable with in Strayed Lights – yet – is the world design. At a very basic level the early areas could be called starkly interesting, but it’s a fairly hollow world of simple colours and flat features that fails to capture my imagination. It brightens up considerably later, but that’s based mostly on what I’ve seen in screenshots and trailers. It doesn’t offer the best first impression, is the point I’m making.
The lack of context or story also holds it back. I don’t know what my character even is, or why they’re fighting, or why I had to start off as a chubby little toddler made of fire. With barely five minutes of life experience under my belt I’m already going toe-to-toe with huge clawed monstrosities four times my size and no one is telling me why I should care or want to.
I get that there’s an unwritten rule that a Soulslike plot must be about as discernible as a book written backwards and upside down with black ink on black paper that’s strapped to the side of galloping horse and is on fire, but it wouldn’t hurt to offer us something to give two hoots about while we’re dodging, blocking and headbutting glowing ogres. Maybe there’s something to be said about a game that’s almost all gameplay and no filler, but if I don’t care about the world, why do I want to save it?
Strayed Lights does promise spectacle, however, and for some that will be enough. Boss fights against towering abominations and a steadily evolving combat system that adds moves and abilities to your repertoire is nothing new for the genre, but combined with the mystery of the world could offer a compelling enough hook to keep people invested. As a first look though, the preview build left me a little cold towards the world. I can’t fault the satisfaction found in the immediate, reactive combat, but right now it feels like a pretty, functional framework that I really hope supports a world worth exploring.
Strayed Lights is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and the Xbox family in April 2023.